WASHINGTON –- Long after his postseason magic had finally run out with his nullified 3-pointer, a shell-shocked Paul Pierce sat slumped in a chair in front of his corner stall in the Wizards' locker room.
Pierce was taking this 94-91 Game 6 loss hard. A man who normally exhales swagger looked devastated and sounded as if his soul had been crushed.
Moments later, a stunned Bradley Beal was at a table trying to make sense of how the Wizards' season was suddenly over.
Simply put, John Wall’s hand wasn’t the only thing fractured Friday night in D.C.
“It is heartbreaking,” Beal said.
The Wizards really believed they were going to beat the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks. They felt that way before Wall suffered five non-displaced fractures in his left hand and wrist in the second quarter of Game 1, and deep down, they will probably feel that way all summer.
In fact, this whole series seemed defined by an extremity. From Wall’s hand to Pierce’s fingertips, the Wizards know how they let just about every opportunity to take this series slip right through their fingers.
All four of their losses to the Hawks were decided in the fourth quarter. But what will haunt the Wizards is how they lost the last two on the final play.
Had they protected a nine-point lead with six minutes to go or just secured one defensive rebound at the end of Game 5, the Wizards would have been in position to close out the series Friday night.
Instead, they saw their season end after Pierce appeared to bury a dramatic, overtime-forcing 3 seemingly from The Capitol. But replays showed the shot was still on Pierce’s fingertips as the buzzer went off.
This time, Pierce could call “Series!” just as he called "Game!" after his late 3 put the Wizards up in Game 3. It was over, and in devastating fashion.
“This is frustrating. It’s depressing. It’s sad -- probably every synonym of sad that you can think of,” Beal said. "Just a few more tenths of a second.”
Beal and Wall showed the immense promise they possess and how they could very well be the backcourt of the future. Wall, broken wrist and hand and all, had 20 points and 13 assists. Beal continued to sprout into a two-way star, with 29 points (20 of them in the second half) while he continued to be the Kyle Korver silencer.
Marcin Gortat was battling an illness and couldn’t give more than 12 minutes, so Randy Wittman turned to little-used Kevin Seraphin, who stepped up with 13 points and eight rebounds in 28 minutes. Pierce struggled, especially on defense, as several Hawks attacked his 37-year-old body like they were a virus.
The Wizards fell behind by 14 in the third, but Wall and Beal kept fighting. They made the climb all the way back to 89-89 with 1:14 left.
Then Washington did what it did pretty much whenever the series was hanging in the balance: It made just enough plays to lose.
DeMarre Carroll beat Wall not once but twice on slips to the basket for layups to push Atlanta up 93-89. Al Horford missed a free throw, which gave Pierce one more opportunity to deliver another golden playoff moment.
He appeared to do just that when he somehow slipped by Horford and Korver on the baseline. But an explosion of hope for what could come in overtime soon turned into thousands of depressed fans leaving Verizon Center for the final time this season.
If you thought the way they lost Game 5 -- by blowing a nine-point lead in the final six minutes and failing to secure a defensive rebound before watching Horford beat them with a last-second putback -- was painful, the Wizards again managed to do what they have done best the past three decades or so: find creative and demoralizing ways to lose.
Falling behind by 14, fighting all the way back, only to have the season end after being teased with a dramatic Pierce buzzer-beater that would have forced overtime, is par for the course for the franchise. Remember, Washington’s long-suffering basketball fan base feels the team is cursed.
From Bernard King’s and Gilbert Arenas’ injuries to the failed Chris Webber-Juwan Howard era to Kwame Brown, the Bullets-Wizards have had their share of calamities.
As TNT’s David Aldridge, a D.C. native who has covered the franchise for decades, aptly put it, losing like this “is sooo Bullets.”
“If we could have had one more second ...,” Wall lamented.
What if Wall had never broken his hand and wrist? What if Nene had grabbed that rebound, instead of Horford, at the end of Game 5? What if Pierce’s 3 counted?
“Only God knows how different it would have been,” Wall said of if he hadn’t gotten hurt. “The series is over. All we can do is think about [how] it could have been different.”
Wall and Beal came into this season determined to get past the previous year’s second-round showing against Indiana. They swept the Raptors in the first round and won Game 1 at Atlanta.
But Wall came crashing down on his wrist in Game 1, and Washington’s dreams of reaching a conference finals and beyond for the first time since 1979 ended up fracturing along with Wall’s hand.
“For a second year, we couldn’t get them over the hump,” Wall said. “It’s going to be nightmares for a couple of days for us.”
The future remains bright for Washington with Wall and Beal. The Wizards need to add maybe another piece, perhaps somebody to be a force inside the paint, along with some more shooting.
But the heartbreak of letting this series slip out of their fingertips will linger much longer than the pain in Wall’s hand.
Washington blew the series and a chance to face old friend LeBron and Cleveland in the conference finals. Who knew what could have happened after that? The way Pierce and Beal were playing, and with Wall getting more time to heal, anything was possible.
“We always say it is a game of inches,” said Pierce, who looked like he'd need all summer to get over this. “A split second here, a split second there, as you saw tonight, can determine the outcome. That is the difference between winning and losing.”